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Ancient Mediterranean Grains for Modern Life

Exploring ancient Mediterranean grains for modern life.

Grains have taken a hit over the past few years as a result of the low-carb, gluten-free and paleo diets. There are a number of reasons cited for giving up grains, gluten or wheat, most of which are related to celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, gut health and diet trends.

In the Mediterranean, grains form the foundation of the diet as depicted in the pyramid from the Mediterranean Diet Foundation. The graphic shows 1 – 2 servings of bread, pasta, rice, couscous or cereals (preferably whole grains) typically consumed at every main meal.


Bach-Faig, Berry EM, Lairon D, Reguant J,Trichopoulou A, Dernini S, Medina FX, Battino M, Belahsen R, Miranda G, Serra-Majem L. Mediterranean diet pyramid today. Science and cultural updates. Mediterranean Diet Foundation Expert Group. Public Health Nutr. 2011 Dec;14(12A):2274-84.

Bach-Faig, Berry EM, Lairon D, Reguant J,Trichopoulou A, Dernini S, Medina FX, Battino M, Belahsen R, Miranda G, Serra-Majem L. Mediterranean diet pyramid today. Science and cultural updates. Mediterranean Diet Foundation Expert Group. Public Health Nutr. 2011 Dec;14(12A):2274-84.

Mediterraneans are into grains as part of an overall healthy, balanced and varied diet. Just the thought of sitting down to a meal without pa amb tomaquet – a toasted baguette rubbed with sliced garlic and squeezed tomato then lightly drizzled with olive oil – would cause outrage in Barcelona.

Yet, even in the Mediterranean region, the traditional diet is shifting and great efforts are being taken to educate Mediterraneans about preserving their dietary heritage. For example, here in Spain gluten-free foods are now more available, primarily targeting individuals needing special diets related to celiac disease or gluten sensitivities; however, the quality and variety is lacking considering the additional cost.

Mediterraneans, however, do manage to eat a variety of grains, some of which are naturally free from gluten or wheat. Traditional grains of the region are minimally processed, direct from the source and very fresh. The bread won’t last more than a day in the breadbox!


Mediterranean Whole Grains

Not all grains are created equal. Whole grains, as compared to refined grains, have been shown to lower total cholesterol, lower blood triglycerides and regulate insulin levels. The Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Platerecommends reserving one quarter of your plate for whole grains – not just any grains.

What is a whole grain – you ask? To be considered a true whole grain, it must contain all three essential parts of the grain seed in the original proportions. These include a tough outer layer called bran, an interior layer of starchy endosperm and an innermost layer called germ, which is rich in vitamins, minerals, and unsaturated oils.

During the early days of cultivation, humans ate whole grains straight from the stalk. However, the invention of refining mills in the late 19th century has since changed the way we eat grains. The refining process strips away the bran and the germ making the grain more palatable, less perishable and more delicate. Although nutrients can be added back to “enrich” the flour, whole grains are undoubtedly more healthy. Without the bran and germ, about 25% of a grain’s protein is lost along with at least seventeen key nutrients. For a shocking look at the differences among nutrient profiles, refer to the graphic from Oldways & The Whole Grains Council.

The following list offers some background, health benefits and simple methods for cooking with grains. There are gluten-free and wheat-free options as well. So, you can decide which grains work best for your family and fit nicely with your busy dinnertime schedule.




Background: Barley, one of our most ancient crops, is believed to have originated in the Middle East. Apparently we have barley to thank for the anti-metric system of measurement used in England and America (sigh). In 1324 Edward II of Englandstandardized the inch as equal to “three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end lengthwise.”

Hulled barley retains the bran and endosperm layer, is darker in color and is considered a whole grain. Pearl barley has been refined, thereby removing the endosperm, which makes it lighter in color and lower in fiber. Hulled barley retains its shape while the pearl barley releases the starch into the cooking liquid making it ideal for creamy risotto dishes. Barley can also be used in soups, teas, salads and breakfast cereals.

Health Benefits: Barely, in its intact whole grain form, is a high-fiber food (17%) and is rich in antioxidants, selenium, niacin, manganese and phosphorus. Considering its content of soluble fiber, barley may also help to lower LDL cholesterol.

Simple: Start by rinsing the barley under running water and remove any debris. Using 1 part barley to 3 parts liquid (water or broth), combine ingredients in saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for about 25 minutes for pearl barley and 40 minutes for hulled barley. Let sit covered until the liquid is absorbed.

Elegant: Deb Perelman shares a delicious recipe for Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad at



Wheat-Free | Gluten-Free

Background: Buckwheat is a pseudo-cereal very popular in Europe and Asia. Despite the name, buckwheat does not contain wheat. The seeds, called groats, resemble miniature pyramids and have a distinct nutty flavor. When toasted, buckwheat is called kasha. Buckwheat “crepes” from Brittany, France, properly known as galettes, are legendary. 

Health Benefits: Buckwheat is a naturally gluten-free grain and contains high levels of protein, soluble fiber, zinc, copper, manganese and potassium. Although the groats do contain a complex array of essential amino acids, the digestibility of these proteins is rather low.

Simple: For untoasted groats combine 1 part grain to 2 parts liquid. Place the groats in a dry pan over medium heat to lightly toast and release the nutty flavor. Stir gently for about 5 minutes until browned. Add the liquid and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for about 20-30 minutes.

Elegant: Direct from her tiny Parisian kitchen, Clotilde Dusoulier, of Chocolateand Zucchini explains how to make delicious Buckwheat French Galettes at home. Those following a strict gluten-free diet must omit the whole wheat flour and use only the buckwheat flour.



Photo Source: Lara Ferroni via  Flickr

Photo Source: Lara Ferroni via Flickr

Background:  This popular Italian grain, known as emmer wheat, has a delicate, nutty flavor and chewy texture. Farro comes in pearled and semi-pearled forms. Since pearled farro undergoes more refining, it contains less fiber and nutrients than the semi-pearled version. 

Health Benefits: Farro is a rich source of vitamins A, B, C, E, magnesium, protein and fiber. 

Elegant: Start with 1 part farrow to 2 parts liquid, although the semi-pearled version may require more liquid. Combine farro with liquid in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for up to 40 minutes until grains are tender and have absorbed all of the liquid.

Fancy: This delightful recipe comes from our Mediterranean Diet friends at Oldways: Spinach, Farro, Strawberry & Feta Salad.


Wheat-Free | Gluten-Free

Background: Millet originally was grown and consumed in Northern Africa, yet Romans enjoyed millet for polenta-like porridges. Since the 1970s, millet has been gaining popularity in Western Europe and North America as a nutritious, quick-cooking, inexpensive and naturally gluten-free grain. It has a nutty and popcorn-like flavor which my children love!

Health Benefits: Millet is a great source of protein, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc and manganese. The grain is very versatile as a morning porridge and a healthy addition to baked goods, salads and homemade stews and soups.

Simple: Use 1 part millet to 2 parts liquid for a fluffy dish and increase to 3 parts liquid for a creamy porridge. First toast the grain in a medium saucepan. Next add the liquid, bring to a boil and simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes. Let it sit a few minutes and then fluff with a fork.

Elegant: Try this recipe for Mushroom, Millet and Leek Frittatas from the Sprouted Kitchen. Freeze an extra batch for quick and easy morning meals.

Wheat Berries and Bulgur

Background: Wheat berries are the least processed form of wheat and have a chewy texture and sweet taste.  These raw kernels have been stripped only of their outer hull and are available in forms of hard or soft, winter or spring, and red or white. Bulgur is a durum wheat product that has been precooked, dried and then cracked into pieces (photo above). Bulgar is available in fine, medium and coarse forms. The first two are often used in tabbouleh and the coarse form in pilafs.

Health Benefits: Since both forms of wheat preserve the germ and bran layers, these grains are naturally rich in fiber, folate, calcium, phosphorous, zinc, copper, iron, vitamin E and many B vitamins. 

Simple: When cooking wheat berries, combine 1 part grain to 3 parts liquid in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for at least 90 minutes until tender. For bulgur, combine 1 part grain to 2 parts liquid in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes.

Elegant: Try this traditional tabbouleh salad from Christina DiLaura at My Mother’s Lebanese Tabbouleh


Not sure how to cook with whole grains? Check out my free master guide with all the details.

Do you have any favorite family recipes or tricks of the trade involving grains you would like to share? If so, feel free to leave a comment!

I look forward to hearing from you!

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